"This is for every indie artist!" exclaimed Chance the Rapper
during his acceptance speech for Best Rap Album at last Sunday's Grammy Awards. While it's usually tempting to roll your eyes at an artist saying their win is "for all the [insert group] out there," Chance's three Grammy wins actually made history for the indie world: In categories that included Drake, Kanye West, and the Chainsmokers, whose albums all had heavy backing by record labels, Chance beat them all with Coloring Book, a completely self-released album that's only on streaming sites and was promoted mostly by word-of-mouth.
It was the first streaming-only album to win a Grammy, let alone be nominated, and while the idea of making his music essentially free seemed impossible, Chance's overwhelming success has now even attracted music industry execs' attention, curious to see what the ambitious self-made rapper will do next. Anyone who is familiar with Chance's work, or at least has heard the opening lines of the massive hit "No Problem," knows that the Chicago-based artist is not particularly fond of major record labels. "After I made my second mixtape and gave it away online, my plan was to sign with a label and figure out my music from there," Chance explained to Vanity Fair
, "But after meeting with the three major labels, I realized my strength was being able to offer my best work to people without any limit on it."
To really understand Chance's concerns with the major labels, why he isn't the first artist to speak out against them, and what his Grammy victory could mean for the future of the music industry, we have to back up and understand how the music industry works currently, and the role labels play in an artist's career. The term "record label" is somewhat dated in actuality, carrying over from the days when these companies literally pressed vinyl records for their artists. Today, labels are more like "brand management" companies for musicians, as their main job is to handle their clients' PR, marketing, and album distribution among other things. The main appeal of the "Big Three" major labels (Universal, Sony, Warner) is that artists can gain access to these resources and reach a greater audience than they could on their own. However, these labels are billion-dollar businesses, so that means they require something from the artist in return for their services, like licensing rights or ownership of master recordings. Essentially, think of it as sacrificing some artistic freedom in exchange for greater exposure and having all aspects of your brand controlled under one roof.
It's in this trade-off where artists begin to have problems with labels. For example, your album might become a hit and reach millions thanks to massive press and promotion blitzes by your label, but depending on the fine print in your contract, anything you record, including demos, may automatically belong to them. Your label could control who you can work with, how many albums you can release, what music you're allowed to release, and the amount of royalties you receive for your work, which can lead to years of creative stifling and financial struggles. This might not be a problem for a superstar artist who is already making millions and prefers to have someone else handle the business side of things, but it could cause problems for say, a young, eager artist who doesn't carefully read the fine print. A mistake they make in their early twenties may affect their career for years following, possibly even destroying it completely. It's an unfortunate reality, but major labels are ultimately about making money, and they will only help and nurture an artist's craft to the point where they are still able to generate profit.
Enter Chance the Rapper. Like many artists, he wasn't keen on giving labels power over his work, so he cut them off completely and made one of the most talked-about albums of 2016 on his own terms. While streaming royalties aren't enough to sustain a career on their own, Chance has still been able to generate profit through other means,like merchandise, touring, and meet-and-greets. He's certainly not the first rapper to drop an album unsigned, but he's the first one to do so and reach so many people on a near-equivalent level to major label artists. With Coloring Book, Chance just proved that with the right team and the right strategy, an artist can reach massive success without the help of a label and without the need to sacrifice one's creative liberties.
Before the age of the Internet, an artist needed a record label if they had any hope of pushing their music beyond their local scene, but that business model has become increasingly obsolete as music technology and accessibility improves, and Chance's success is a prime testament to this idea. Yes, Chance can be argued to be an exception, and his success won't mean thousands of self-made artists will suddenly emerge and take over the music biz by the end of the year, but that's not the main point here. What Chance has done that is so important is that he's set a precedent.
He has proven that what many dismissed as impossible can in fact be done, and with that, the long-standing idea that widespread success only comes with record labels is now very publicly brought into question. And like most formally impossible things, people now willing to take a chance (pun mostly intended) and try to follow the precedent themselves.
This idea won't put the Big Three out of business overnight, but if they're smart, it's at least got them talking, because this artist-driven movement against labels has been going on for decades now. Discontent with his recording contract, Frank Ocean
, a streaming-exclusive visual album, to cap off his three-album deal with Universal, and then almost immediately released Blonde
, arguably his actual follow-up LP to Channel Orange
, independently through his own label. While the legal ramifications
are fuzzy, UMG hasn't sued Orange yet, and the album release fake-out was enough of a PR gut-punch to the major label that it might have led to their decision to end all streaming exclusives
to prevent the rug from being pulled from under them a second time. Paul McCartney
has been fighting Sony for years to regain his copyright ownership over songs he wrote in the Beatles, and in fact sued the label
earlier this year. Even before that, Prince
famously changed his name
to a made-up symbol in 1993 just so he could release music outside of his Warner contract's rigid parameters, and literally spent the rest of his life comparing major label deals to "slavery"
and warning young artists about the dangers of shady recording contracts.
Clearly, this message of discontent has been a long time coming for record labels, and now with Chance, that message is louder than ever for something to change. The question then becomes what that change might be, and how long it will take to come about. As more and more artists consider major labels to be a luxury, but not a necessity, will the Big Three find a way to adjust to the changing sentiment? Will indie labels gain power and notoriety, and even resurrect a pre-Big Three music business landscape with dozens of labels competing on a mainstream level? Will the whole record label business simply collapse as more artists follow Chance's lead and be the leader of their own production, promotion, and marketing teams? It's hard to say what will happen now, but at the very least, it will be exciting to see. Music is one of those industries where something is impossible until the moment that it isn't, and now that ambitious, young artists can win Grammys on their own terms, it's worth paying attention to see what will happen next.